Where are the British food chains?

There is a well known joke that says: Heaven is where the police are British, the chefs Italian, the mechanics are German, the lovers are French and it’s all organised by the Swiss. Hell is where the police are German, the chefs are British, the mechanics are French, the lovers are Swiss and it’s all organised by the Italians!

Put it this way, the British have never been famous for their cuisine. But it has been a week where a YouGov poll has caused controversy over its categorisation of British food. With favourites such as beef Wellington and Scotch eggs on a low tier and sausage rolls not even mentioned, the twitter sphere is outraged. There are inevitable comparisons to Brexit and complaints that the only colour on the chart was beige. But the most surprising point from my point of view was the revelation from the survey that 91% of Britons enjoy their national cuisine.

This figure sounds like a fairly normal number for a country with a proud and rich culture. However if we do have such a taste for our national cuisine, why isn’t this reflected in our restaurant consumption? A study conducted by Meerkat Meals in 2018 shows that the average Brit will eat out at least once a month with 6 out of 10 choosing the same places every time. The rise off the chain restaurant has certainly made it simple to make a decision. Wherever you are in England there is a guarantee that a Pollo ad Astra pizza. will taste the same in any Pizza Express you walk into, Wagamama’s will always deliver the same Pad Thai in London as in Manchester and the Brit obsession with a cheeky Nandos has been documented by everyone from MPs to boxing heavyweight champions. But the thing all of our favourite chains have in common is that they all showcase the cuisines of other nations.

Of the top 10 casual dining restaurants in England with the most outlets (last recorded 2017); 5 were Italian, 1 American, 1 Portuguese, 2 French, and 1 Japanese. Where are the national chain of fish and chip shops? Why did a chain of South African invented Portuguese food capture the imagination of the British public so much that they now have over 400 outlets whilst Pizza Express has never fallen from public interest since it opened in 1965, now reaching over 470 outlets across the U.K?

Of course the argument could be made that for when the 91% of Brits reach out for their fix of their national cuisine they so love, they can just pop down to their local traditional pub. Staples of the cuisine mentioned in the YouGov poll such as Shepherd’s pie, Sunday roast, Ploughman’s lunch would undoubtedly be available at the local Wetherspoons. But you would also find nachos, buffalo wings, pizza and curry. Presumably there is a reason that Pizza Express has never felt the need to offer anything outside the realm of Italian cuisine whereas Wetherspoon’s, Greene King and Fuller’s all offer British classsics alongside a huge myriad of dishes from cuisines across the globe. The demand just doesn’t seem as high for a solely British cuisine based restaurant. Or perhaps our cuisine has diversified to include a range of dishes from around the world?

What is interesting is that this bias against British food does not see to apply at the higher end of the market. Within the independent restaurant market with an average cost of c.£50 per head and higher per meal; British cuisine has been a food trend that doesn’t seem to be waning. Restaurants like Pollen Street Social, The Hind’s Head and Hawkesmoor go from strength to strength as consumers flock for traditional British grub, albeit elevated to a more refined level. Shows like the Great British Menu have championed the best of British. They have trumpeted the use of exclusively British produce and encouraged the public to embrace some of the more unusual historic foods such as bone marrow. Heston Blumenthal talked in an article about the change in fashion for British chefs from the popularity of French inspired food of the 80s and 90s to the British inspiration that dominates the industry.  He said “There’s a new generation of chefs now doing some fantastic cooking of their own. Instead of being perfect exponents of French cuisine they are expressing their own personalities and experiences in their food”.

Given the higher end of the restaurant scene is so dominated by British cuisine, why isn’t there an equivalent chain restaurant monopolising on their success? Surely there is a gap in the market? Unfortunately it does not seem to be on the horizon. Jamie’s chain of Great British restaurants was the first to fold of his empire barely lasting a year. With all the patriotic fever of Brexit, perhaps this is the moment for an entrepreneur to step forward and create the ultimate British high street restaurant. But in the meantime we can only dream of a Shepherd’s pie and Treacle tart as we tuck into asome dough balls and garlic butter.g

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